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Commentary ... ...
    Time not ripe for universal suffrage

2004-05-10 06:39

Some people may have difficulty believing that Beijing genuinely wants Hong Kong to have universal suffrage in the elections of its chief executive and the whole legislature.

But, as one involved in the drafting of the Basic Law, I can say, with hand on heart, that there was never any difficulty writing the clauses of Annexes I and II of the Basic Law which are directly concerned with these elections and which set universal suffrage as the ultimate aim.

However, changes in the political structure are not a matter purely for Hong Kong and, according to the annexes, changes to the election of the chief executive will need the approval of the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), while changes to LegCo elections will need to be submitted to the NPC for the record.

"For the record" does not mean the NPC will rubber-stamp it. If there is a departure from the Basic Law, the NPC can refuse to accept it and place it for the record.

Changes in the political structure of the SAR need to go through the tests set out in Articles 45 and 68. We must take into account the reality of Hong Kong, and the way forward must be a step-by-step approach in respect of electoral changes.

The definition of "actual situation" includes the fact that Hong Kong had no election to the Legislative Council until 1991. In the 12 years since we have progressed from zero to 50 per cent directly elected members in LegCo.

This rate of progress is not slow by any count. We examined the progress of democracy in the US and UK when we drafted the Basic Law. It took both countries well over 100 years to achieve fully elected legislatures through universal franchise.

In addition, the UK also retained its bicameral or two-house system to ensure other than just elected legislators, the UK continues to have experts and leaders from all walks of life in the Upper House to contribute to the work of the legislature.

In Hong Kong we have combined the two-house system in the Legislative Council to provide the necessary checks and balances and the inclusion of representation of all walks of life and interest groups, in keeping with the essence of a bicameral system.

So there is nothing intrinsically wrong with retaining the functional constituencies.

Since Hong Kong's return to the motherland, Hong Kong people have been ruling themselves. There have been no appointees whatsoever from the mainland in the government. Thus we have realized democracy in the sense that it is Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, with its leaders elected in Hong Kong by its own permanent residents. So it is not a matter of "returning power to Hong Kong people". We already got it on July 1, 1997.

It is also the actual situation of Hong Kong that it is a place for economic and financial activities, and keeping its capitalist system of economy is the raison d'etre of Hong Kong.

The current debate is actually over how we can have a more open electoral system.

When we drafted the Basic Law it had already been decided that the political system must serve a capitalist economy. So when we talked about a gradual, step-by-step approach and ultimately reaching universal suffrage we knew that time was needed for political parties to mature and political leaders to be fostered. Speed was not of the essence. The most important thing was to do what is right for Hong Kong.

There is not a single political party mature enough to appreciate or represent the common interests of the whole spectrum of the community. Nor have we leaders to articulate such policies even if they knew what these should be.

So going for universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008 will only produce uncertainty in the community. What kind of leader will be thrown up? What kind of policies will be adopted? How competent will be the administration of such a set-up? These are grave doubts.

This, coming at a time when Hong Kong is going through a major structural change in its economy, can only create a wholly negative climate rather than providing a clear picture of the future.

We cannot afford such an experiment. Nor can the restructuring of our economy be delivered by adopting universal franchise. Those who think otherwise need to take a fresh look at the vital statistics.

Hong Kong's taxpayers make up only 30 per cent of the population. The other 70 per cent of our working population do not pay tax at all.

Some 2.4 million people live in public housing estates. They make up the largest vote-lobby.

If there is to be universal suffrage we need to first clarify the rights and obligations of taxpayers as well as the rights and obligations of being Chinese nationals. Otherwise it will not be conducive to responsible voting. We need, therefore, a gradual and educational approach to our rights and obligations.

The NPCSC was right to make an interpretation on April 6 to clarify the procedures to take if there is a need for electoral changes. It enables us to know what roles the SAR and central governments play in Hong Kong's political reform process.

Likewise Qiao Xiaoyang, NPCSC deputy secretary general, clearly explained the reasons behind the top legislature's ruling that 2007 and 2008 are not the proper time for universal suffrage. Qiao and other Beijing officials reiterated that a gradual approach is needed given the existing situation in Hong Kong.

I accept this decision and the explanations given. I support the course of action taken by the NPCSC, which is in accordance with the Basic Law.

It is a sad truth that most people in Hong Kong, including some outspoken leading lawyers on the issue of Article 45 and Article 68, have not appreciated the reasons given. They have interpreted the phrase "actual situation" as the demand of the people, as seen through opinion polls and the July 1 protest.

It is now time for those who criticized the central government for not laying out a road map to universal suffrage to engage the SAR government in a meaningful dialogue to expand the representativeness of LegCo and the electoral college.

Mutual trust will make the way ahead straighter and wider. Confrontation or seeking foreign help will only make the road rougher and more tortuous.

(HK Edition 05/10/2004 page7)